Golden Ancestry: Are Retrievers Related to Wolves?

You may have heard that all dogs are related to wolves, which may be hard to believe when watching your friendly and lovable Golden Retriever in action. Are Golden Retrievers really related to wolves?

Golden Retrievers are related to wolves. Genetic studies show that all dogs descended from a type of wolf that later became extinct. Dogs share this common ancestor with the gray wolf of today. Golden Retrievers are a relatively recent breed, but like all dogs, their wolf ancestry goes back thousands of years.

Are you still struggling to see the relationship between your Golden Retriever and a wolf? Well, you’ve come to the right place. We’ll look at the Golden Retriever’s ancestry and how wolves fit into the picture in more detail below.  

Are golden retrievers related to woves.

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Golden Retriever Characteristics

Before we get into the issue of Golden Retriever ancestry, let’s look at the characteristics of these loveable pets.

In the US, Golden Retrievers have long been one of the most popular dogs to own. That won’t be a surprise to anyone already familiar with the breed. 

Golden retrievers are famed for their handsome golden coats, gentle dispositions, and good natured attitudes. Their big brown eyes and floppy ears give them a lovable appearance.

Golden Retrievers are famous for their friendly nature and their willingness to please their human companions. They’re intelligent, obedient, and easy to train. They’re also boisterous, playful and eagerly seek out human contact.

All these characteristics make them perfect as a family pet. But they’re also often found working as guide dogs or service animals for the disabled, proving that Golden Retrievers are both smart and versatile.

What Are Golden Retrievers Descendants Of?

When you look at Golden Retrievers’ characteristics, it’s hard to believe that they have any relationship with wild wolves. That notion just seems barking mad. When you look at how the breed came into existence, there are no signs of wolves in the mix.

A Product of the Victorian Age

In terms of dog ancestry, Golden Retrievers are a relatively new breed. 

The breed dates back to mid-nineteenth century Scotland. In fact, most of today’s familiar dog breeds date back to this Victorian era. Dog breeding was something of a Victorian passion. It was probably fuelled by Charles Darwin’s writings, particularly his work: On the Origin of Species.

The purpose of breeding was to create dogs that had required traits or abilities. The Victorians used breeding to improve and perfect the attributes of existing breeds. The breeding of the Golden Retriever was no exception.

In the mid-nineteenth century, wildfowl hunting was a popular sport in Scotland. The hunters used retriever dogs to collect and recover the downed fowl. 

These dogs had particular skills. These skills included the ability to remember where downed fowl landed. Sometimes the retrievers would have to recall the landing spot of several birds at a time. 

They were then able to retrieve the prey without damaging it. Retrievers could hold the prey in their mouth without biting into or crushing it. Retrievers were hardy and eager to please as well as easy to train and control. All these attributes were crucial to their role.

But Scottish landowner, Dudley Marjoribanks, noticed a problem. The retriever dogs in existence at that time did well when wildfowl came down on land. But they struggled to retrieve prey from the water.

This was a problem given the prevalence of rivers and marshes in the local hunting grounds. It meant that many downed fowl were never retrieved.

Unsurprisingly for the times, Marjoribanks sought to address this shortcoming through breeding.

He wanted to develop a breed that would be as comfortable locating and retrieving downed wildfowl from the water as well as the land.

What the Breeding Records Show

Fortunately for subsequent researchers, Marjoribanks kept detailed written records of his breeding process. Those records dispelled a long-held belief about the descendants of Golden Retrievers. The belief was that Marjoribanks crossed Russian Tracker dogs with a sandy-colored Bloodhound. For a long time it was believed that all Golden Retrievers descended from this pairing.

Marjoribanks’ studbooks cover the period 1835 to 1890 and were only made public in the 1950s. But they showed no record of a purchase of Russian dogs. Instead, the records showed that his Golden Retrievers came about by breeding a yellow male retriever with a Tweed Water Spaniel.

At that time, retrievers tended to be black, so the yellow retriever was a rarity. But it was the yellow coloring that attracted Marjoribanks to the male retriever. 

The now extinct Tweed Water Spaniel was an adept water dog. Waterdogs were specifically bred to retrieve prey from the water. The basic idea of this pairing was clear. It was to combine the retriever’s land retrieving skills with the Tweed Water Spaniel’s water retrieving ability.

The pups produced by this pairing were subsequently bred with other breeds. According to the studbooks, these other breeds were the Irish Setter and the St John’s Water-Dog. Those records show that another Tweed Water Spaniel and other black retrievers were also used.

So, thanks to the records kept by Marjoribanks, the breeds from which the Golden Retriever descended are clear. 

As you can see, there’s no mention of wolves in this breeding history. So, you’re probably wondering what part wolves play in the Golden Retriever’s ancestral story. 

Well, keep reading, because that’s what we’ll look at next.

Where Do Wolves Fit Into the Golden’s Ancestry?

There are so many different breeds of dogs, varying widely in size, color, appearance, and even personality.

As you’ve read above, the Golden Retriever’s closest ancestors were a variety of other breeds and the breeding process is one that is common to many other breeds of dog.

How all dogs descended from wolves.

Indeed, take a look at an evolutionary tree of dogs constructed from a 2017 genome study. It illustrates the varied genetic relationships between various dog breeds.

But the relationship between different breeds isn’t the full ancestral story. Only looking at the breed relationships is a bit like starting to read a book from the middle. You only get part of the story. The ancestry of dogs goes much further back in time than individual breed history. In fact, we’re talking thousands of years.

Going back that far might seem irrelevant when talking of a breed like Golden Retrievers. After all, they only came into existence around 150 years ago. But to answer the question of whether Golden Retrievers are related to wolves, it’s necessary to do so. 

In fact, the evolution of dogs has been the subject of significant research over many years. But the emergence of genetic testing has helped to clarify their ancestry.

Early Views on Dog Evolution

In his writings On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin concluded that dogs evolved from several different wild canine species.

The view seemed logical to him at the time, based on the enormous differences between breeds. 

Darwin felt such variances were not solely down to changes brought about through evolution. In his view, part of these differences had to be attributable to a variety of ancestral species.

On the other hand, one of Darwin’s contemporaries, Thomas Bell, expressed the opinion that dogs descended from one source, the gray wolf. This was in direct contradiction to Darwin’s view. 

Bell placed great importance on the gestation period (the time it takes for the embryo to develop during pregnancy) as a way of identifying members of the same species.

The gestation period for wolves and dogs was the same, at sixty-three days. The gestation period for jackals was fifty-nine days. Additionally, Bell observed that wolves and dogs sometimes breed together and their offspring are fertile.

On that basis, Bell concluded that wolves and dogs were of the same species and that due to the slightly longer gestation period, dogs were not the same species as jackals.

The DNA Evidence

With the progress of science, this bone of contention between Darwin and Bell was settled. 

A study published in 1997 examined DNA from several dog breeds. Researchers compared that DNA to DNA from wolves, coyotes, and jackals. It found that the DNA from dogs matched most closely that of wolves. The report concluded that dogs descended only from wolves, and not from other wild canines like jackals or coyotes.

If Thomas Bell were alive today, you’d have to forgive him for howling with laughter. The study’s conclusion was consistent with his view that domesticated dogs descended directly from the gray wolf

And, indeed, some classifications of dogs identify them as a subspecies of the gray wolf. Subsequent research into the genomes of modern-day wolves brought this classification into question. 

Scientists collected genomes of living wolves from three regions. The regions chosen were those thought to be the location of the dogs’ descendants. They compared the wolves’ genomes to dog genomes.

The study showed some relationship between the wolves and the dogs. But the researchers found an even closer relationship between the dogs themselves. These findings suggested to the researchers that the modern-day wolf isn’t a direct ancestor of the domesticated dog. 

Instead, it concluded that dogs and gray wolves must have descended from a common wolf ancestor that was no longer alive. That meant that dogs aren’t a subspecies of the gray wolf, but both are subspecies of that extinct wolf ancestor. 

Can you imagine wolves behaving like this!?

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An evolutionary tree based on the genetic findings gives a visual representation of this.

You’ll see from that tree that dogs and gray wolves are close relations. But this comes through common ancestry rather than through direct lineage.

Where Does That Leave Us?

It will take a study of DNA from ancient wolf and dog fossils before scientists can identify the extinct ancestral wolf. Whether the ancestral wolf is amongst the available fossils remains to be seen.

Either way, the wolf ancestry of dogs, like Golden Retrievers, seems scientifically established.

How Did Dogs Evolve From Wild Wolves?

Naturally, you have to wonder how a wild wolf became the domestic dogs of today.

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Are Golden Retrievers Related to Wolves

You might imagine that some ancient hunters took in a wolf pup and turned it into a dog. But it’s more complicated than that.

The types of differences that now exist between wild wolves and dogs are profound. They can only have come about over a significant period through domestication.  

That’s the process by which a wild animal is adapted for use by humans. That use may be for food or clothing, or it may be to perform some task. Or, the purpose might be companionship.

It may be that humans tamed and bred wolves. But it’s also possible that wolves scavenging in human settlements became accustomed to being around humans. They were effectively taming themselves through the generations. No-one knows for sure.

But at some point, humans and wolves became comfortable around each other. So much so that they no longer view each other as a threat. Instead, it became a mutually beneficial relationship.

Over time these wolves adapted to the needs of their human companions. Humans may have trained them to help in herding or hunting. That’s like the way Golden Retrievers were bred thousands of years later to help wildfowl hunters.

But the evolution from wild wolf to domestic dog wasn’t just about taming and training wild animals. The domestication process was multi-generational. It resulted in physical and physiological changes. Such adaptations reflected the animal’s new environment that no longer required it to be able to survive in the wild.

These profound changes created a genetic distinction between the wild wolf and the domesticated dog.

You’ll read about some of these changes in a minute but first let’s find out when wolves were first domesticated.

When Were Wolves Domesticated?

Precisely when this process of transforming the wild ancestral wolf into a domestic dog took place isn’t known for sure. Researchers’ findings vary widely.

How dogs became domesticated

The oldest remains of a domesticated dog, found in Europe, date back 14,000 years. In Israel, the 12,000-year-old remains of a woman holding a puppy are another sign that by this time, domestication had taken place.

The 1997 DNA study mentioned above concluded that the divergence between wolves and dogs started 135,000 years ago. That seems to be an outlier, as later genetic studies estimated that the separation took place between 11,000 and 32,000 years ago.

The latter range is more consistent with the archeological findings.

As you can see, the timing of the domestication of wolves is an area of scientific disagreement. Whether these disagreements can be resolved and the range narrowed through further studies remains to be seen.

For our purposes, pinpointing when the split between wild wolves and dogs happened isn’t necessary. Clearly, the domestication of wolves occurred thousands of years ago.

So, let’s turn to something we can be more precise about, namely some of the changes brought about by this domestication.

What Were the Effects of Domestication?

The effects of domestication were varied, manifesting themselves in many ways. Don’t forget; the changes brought about through domestication didn’t happen in one moment in time. They occurred over long periods. 

Below you’ll find some examples of the differences between wolves and dogs that came about through this process.


Differences Between Wolves and Dogs through Domestication 
Physical
– The head size of an adult dog of the same weight as an adult wolf is 20% smaller

– An adult dog with the same head size of an adult wolf has a brain that’s 20% smaller

– Wolves have narrower chests and hips than dogs Wolves have larger paws with two extra-large middle toes

– Dogs come in many different sizes, depending on breed. There is considerably less variation in sizes of wolves
Appearance
– Wolves’ eyes are generally yellow or amber

– Dogs’ eyes are usually blue or brown

-Dogs’ coat colors can vary widely. Wolves coats are typically gray, black, white, or brown

– Wolves’ ears are generally pointed. Dogs’ ears are often floppy
Biological
– Wolves, like most wild animals, breed once a year, between February and March. Dogs breed any time of year and can do so several times in a year

– Wolves mature faster than dogs

– Wolves are carnivores. Dogs became omnivores
Behavioral
– Wolves tend to avoid human contact. Dogs actively seek it out

Some of these changes are fundamental and will have taken place over many thousands of years.

So, despite their common ancestry, you can see just how different wolves and dogs have become. Related, they may be, but the differences between them are significant.

Conclusion

As you’ve seen, the Golden Retriever is a relatively young breed. But thanks to dogged (pun intended) research, we know that its ancestry goes back thousands of years.

Just like all other dogs, Golden Retrievers share a common wolf ancestry with the gray wolf. That common wolf ancestor may be extinct, and as yet unidentified. But the available genetic studies seem clear: Golden Retrievers, like all dogs, are related to wolves.

But the process of domestication resulted in significant differences between wolves and dogs. So, yes, there is a relationship between Golden Retrievers and wolves, but thousands of years of evolution and breeding separate them.

So, there’s nothing to fear. A big bad wolf isn’t lurking within your Golden Retriever. Your canine friend may be playful, mischievous, and sometimes even naughty, but he’ll never be a wolf.

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Bryan Mullennix

Bryan's a freelance travel photographer and happy dog dad. He currently lives in Las Vegas with his wife, his son, and two dogs Nom Nom & Speck.

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